Travel

Actually Cool Things to Do in Detroit

Detroit is a city with a lot of energy and heart -- not even our winters can keep us down. Even when the weather’s bad, there’s always something to do. We have some of the finest museums in the country, two historic pipe organs in two historic old-time movie theaters, a ridiculous amount of music and art all over the city… just to name a few things. So if you’ve got some friends or relatives coming in from out of town -- or if you, dear reader, just want to fall in love with your city all over again -- here are the things absolutely have to accomplish while in the Motor City.

Pretend it’s summer at the Belle Isle Conservatory

Belle Isle Park 
Free
We know winter in Detroit gets pretty brutal. There’s only one place you can go during the depths of the winter months where you can enjoy the sun and some greenery, all while actually feeling warm -- the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory at Belle Isle. The beautiful, gigantic structure has been open since 1904 and is truly an impressive feature all by itself. But inside is even better -- you can enjoy a long, gorgeous walk where you oogle trees, flowers, and bizarre plants from all around the world. For an hour or two, you really do forget that it’s not actually springtime in the tropics.

Hop across the border into Canada

Downtown Detroit (Tunnel) and Southwest Detroit (Bridge)
$
While Canada is lovely to gaze upon from afar, why not pop over and check it “oot”? Windsor is loaded with bars and restaurants, including some Italian, Ethiopian and Vietnamese standouts. The youngins (legal drinking age in Canada is 19, if you didn’t know) usually find the numerous full-nude, booze-slinging strip clubs to be enticing. I mean, who doesn’t? But you should know that the sweetest view of Detroit can be seen from the parks that line Windsor’s waterfront along Riverside Drive. Just bring money for the bridge and tunnel tolls -- oh, and a valid passport or enhanced driver’s license to get across the border.

View outdoor art installations unlike any you’d find elsewhere

Dabls Mbad African Bead Museum / The Heidelberg Project
Free
The mass exodus from Detroit was part of a very difficult, tumultuous chapter of our city’s history. As a way of working through that hardship, two large-scale outdoor art installations arose in abandoned or destroyed areas. One is Dabls Mbad African Bead Museum, which -- in addition to the already-impressive African Bead Gallery, N’Kisi Iron House, and African Language Wall -- contains a Sculpture Garden of 18 buildings.  If you’d rather stay indoors, check out their African Bead Gallery, where you can spend hours. The other is the Heidelberg Project, which was started when artist Tyree Guyton returned to his childhood home in 1986 and found the whole area in shambles. Believing art could be medicine, The Heidelberg Project grew to incorporate the houses, sidewalks, trees, and everything else into a giant, immersive installation.

Dime Store
Dime Store | Yana Benjamin

Grab an unforgettable brunch

Various locations
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Brunch is a big deal everywhere, and you might be tempted to say that if you’ve had brunch in one city, you’ve had it everywhere. This is, of course, complete foolishness: Detroit’s brunch scene is undeniably powerful -- myriad local influences combine to make something greater than the sum of its Benedicts. Hit up Sweet Potato Sensations or Kuzzo’s for some chicken & waffle goodness, Townhouse for sourdough French toast, Red Dunn for almond-ricotta pancakes, The Dime Store for a Cheesesteak Benny, Karl’s for an order of pancakes for the table, or Toast for some… well, toast. Or just check out our brunch guide for more inspiration.

See what a million books looks like

John K. King Used & Rare Books
Free
John K. King Used & Rare Books is housed in a gigantic, four-story building that used to be a glove factory -- and its collection of over a million books actually fills it. In fact, John King (the proper one, not the outlets) is the fourth-largest bookstore in the world. The collection, which features some truly rare treasures, is so sprawling and impressive that you'll be handed a map by an employee the second you walk in. Definitely plan to spend the whole afternoon here.

Seize the chance to check out some music festivals

Various locations
$-$$$
In Detroit, not even the winter keeps us from having our music festivals -- we just simply move them indoors. Check out the epic local band-heavy, crosstown, indoor extravaganza known as the Hamtramck Music Festival in late February, and keep your eyes peeled for the reveal of the lineup for Ferndale Spring Fever, which takes place April-ish. Once the weather gets warmer, we’ll start moving the festivals outside -- starting with the most infamous Detroit festival of all, the electronic music phenomenon known as Movement.

Hop around town to check out live music

Various locations
Free-$$
Detroit has a long history of being a music city, and it’s well deserved. Aside from being the home of Motown, techno, J Dilla, and some choice blues and R&B, it’s also known as a garage rock mecca, and has a rich jazz history. Check concert listings and see what’s coming up; huge artists are always passing through, often playing historic venues like the Fox Theatre. For a totally unique Detroit experience, pay a visit to Cliff Bell’s, Small’s, El Club, Marble Bar, the Ghost Light (part of Planet Ant), The Loving TouchUFO FactoryOuter Limits LoungeDeluxx Fluxx, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, or Trinosophes.

Eat some excellent Middle Eastern food

Dearborn
$-$$
You’ll find excellent Middle Eastern cuisine all around suburban Detroit, thanks to the area being home to the largest population of Arabic peoples in the country. If you’re committed to sticking to the city, try the Bucharest Grill (the Bucharest Shawarma is to die for), or sample the Yemeni cuisine in Hamtramck at local favorites like the appropriately-named Yemen Cafe. If you’re willing to venture just a skip to the west, though, you’ll find the fabulous city of Dearborn: home of Ford Motor Company, and arguably the shawarma capital of the United States. The best thing is, you pretty much can’t go wrong. Every place is good.

Visit Eastern Market

Eastern Market
Free
A trip to Eastern Market is a tour of historic Detroit; the late 19th- and early 20th-century architecture shows a city that was once on the verge of a boom, and you can shop there for everything from antiques to the best cuts of meat in town.On Saturdays and Sundays, the open-air market explodes with fresh (seasonal) produce, meats, flowers, trees, coffee, sweets -- all locally produced, and all for sale at fair prices. And, yes, the markets occur even during the winter. You can warm up inside some of the area’s excellent dining options, especially if you’re into pizza or BBQ. And if you wanna say “eff all that noise” and just do some kung fu, well, you can do that too.

Check out the Diego Rivera murals at the DIA

Midtown
Free to residents of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb County
Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was one of the most sought-after artists of his time, but there’s only one work Rivera claimed to be the most successful of his career -- and it’s in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ atrium. Rivera came to Detroit with his wife (another mildly noteworthy painter named Frida Kahlo) shortly after painting a Marxist mural for the Rockefellers in New York, which was soon chiseled off the wall. The couple spent 11 months living across the street from the DIA at the Park Shelton apartments, with Rivera taking frequent trips to the Ford complex. The end result is the 27-panel mural Detroit Industry, which completely engulfs the atrium. It’s a sight to behold, and a National Historic Landmark to boot.

Go see a movie in a unique theater

Various locations
$
From classic box office hits to arthouse and independent films, you’ve got a few choices to select from that deviate significantly from the norm. Few theaters in the country can beat the majesty of the impeccably preserved Redford Theatre, which was saved from demolition for its unique 1928 pipe organ -- get to any Redford show early for a concert! The Senate Theatre is also well-preserved and pipe organ-touting. If you want international and indie films, head to the auditorium-style Detroit Film Theatre, the appropriately-named Main Art Theatre, the intimate bar-style vibes of the Film Lab, or Cinema Detroit, which sells Faygo. In bottles.

Visit a brewery...

Around Detroit and the suburbs
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Michigan’s arguably the best beer state in the country -- the now nationally famous Bell’s Two-Hearted is just the tip of the iceberg. Go anywhere, and you’re bound to find great craft beer being made. A number of those wonderful breweries are located around Metro Detroit, or have opened outposts here. Check out Atwater Brewery, Jolly Pumpkin, Founders, Motor City Brewing Works, Batch Brewing Works, Brew Detroit, Eastern Market Brewing Co., and others (the list keeps growing). Or go to Hopcat and sample beer from across the state.

... or visit a distillery

Around Detroit
$-$$
If small-batch whiskey, gin, and vodka are more your thing, you’ve got options too. We like our booze in this town, and despite the downfall of manufacturing, that urge to create is still very much in the hearts of Detroiters. Check out Two James Spirits, Our/Detroit, The Whiskey Factory, and Detroit City Distillery, or take a trip up Woodward and visit Valentine Distilling Company in Ferndale. You won’t be disappointed.

... or discover a world-class meadery

Various locations
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Lastly, did you know that metro Detroit is largely considered the best place to get high-quality mead in the country?! If you’ve never had mead, you’re in the right place to try it -- and mead is made by fermenting honey, so why wouldn’t you want to give it a go? Head to B. Nektar, Cellerman’s, or Schramm’s Mead in Ferndale, or drive out to Bløm in Ann Arbor, for some truly unique creations and sweet bubbly delights.

Take a tour of the Guardian Building

Downtown
Free
This is more of a self-guided pop-in than a formal tour, but you get the picture. The Guardian Building is a reflection of the style of the Roaring '20s, as well as of Detroit’s affluence and prominence as an international commercial powerhouse during that time. The 40-story building was completed in 1929 and features impeccable craftsmanship and exquisite tilework that honor the artistic stylings of Native Americans and Aztecs.

Attend the coolest events of the season

Various locations
Free-$$
Beyond outdoor music fests and indoor concerts, there are plenty more worthwhile events going on in Detroit throughout the year, like Hamtramck Labor Day Festival, the MLK Jr. Day Peace Walk, the Thanksgiving Day Parade, or the Grand Prix (just to name a few). How can you keep on top of all these events? Simple: check out our must-do events calendar, updated seasonally and stacked with powerhouse activities.

Kayak the Detroit River

Fisherman’s Marina
$$
Detroit River Sports first became famous for its guided tours of the canals around historic mansions, as well as its full moon tours and paddles through Belle Isle. It’s a unique way to see the city, and ideal for anyone looking to get their heart rate up while they learn about Detroit.

Go to literally any sports game

Downtown
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We now officially have major league baseball, hockey, football, basketball, and minor league soccer games happening all within walking distance. Pretty impressive right? While we still like the Pistons, winters in Detroit are all about hockey and our hometown heroes, the Red Wings. You can catch both teams at Little Caesars Arena. In spring and summer, our zealousness turns to the Tigers, who play at Comerica Park, just across the street. Out-of-towners love a chance to see the local teams in action, and if you’re a local who hasn’t caught a live sporting event here yet... well, what are you waiting for?

Visit Detroit's greatest bars

Various locations
$-$$
Detroit’s known for its rich spread of classic dives, like Jumbo’s, Whiskey in the Jar, or the oldest bar in Detroit, The 2-Way Inn, which has been open since 1876. We’ve got our share of creative cocktail bars as well, such as Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails, Standby, and The Sugar House, and Barter. Or go to The Ghost Bar for an excuse to check out the insanely lavish interior of the Whitney. Or Castalia to have your cocktail paired with a fragrance. We’ve highlighted the best of the best watering holes in our Detroit bar guide -- there’s bound to be a place you haven’t tried on there, so go ahead and try it already!

Go vinyl shopping

Around Detroit
$-$$
If there’s one thing Detroit’s not lacking, it’s music addicts -- specifically, vinyl addicts. You’d be hard-pressed (get it?) to find a more knowledgeable and well-rounded group of music snobs and elitists than the ones you’ll see digging through the crates at places like UHF, Hello Records, Found Sound, Peoples Records, Record Graveyard, Dearborn Music, or Stormy Records. Or the magnificent Encore Records in Ann Arbor. I’d write more, but it’s a never-ending list.

... or press your own vinyl at Third Man Records

Midtown
$
When Jack White pondered where to place the second store for his record company, Third Man, he naturally chose his hometown. Beyond the cool record selection and merch to peruse, there’s a record booth that allows you to make a 2-minute long, 6-inch phonograph disc, which shoots out to you right when you’re done recording. If you write songs like the Misfits, that might be enough time for you, but some people use it as an audio postcard, or just as an excuse to hear the sound of their voice or instrument.

Get a photo taken of your aura

Southwest Detroit
$$
Aura Aura does some magic. “Through a double exposure process of capturing your bio-magnetic, vibrational energy, we make the metaphysical visible, resulting in awe-inspiring, one-of-a-kind portraits,” as their website reports. What this means is that you get a photo of yourself surrounded by your aura, or energy field. Check out the #humanatmosphere hashtags on Instagram to see what to expect.

Roam around town on a bike

All around Detroit
Free
Detroit is a very flat city, with very little traffic. Its streets are also intuitively designed for transport, in either a wheel shape or perfect parallels that make it very difficult to truly get lost. Cycling the city is a great way to see hidden treasures and notice things you normally wouldn’t as you dodge potholes in your car. Pick a destination, or just meander. But you should definitely have a patch repair kit and know how to use it, speaking from experience.

Eat Detroit-style pizza

Around Detroit
$
Detroit-style is typically square, thick (but not as deep as Chicago’s deep-dish), crunchy, and delicious; that’s the kind of pie you’ll find at Buddy’s, Loui’s, Green Lantern, and Niki’s Pizza. Hell, even the fast take-out version you'll get at Jet’s is good. Sit back, get ready to pack on a few pounds, and enjoy a unique pizza experience.

Savor the best soul food you've ever had

Around Detroit
$
Detroit saw an influx of black southerners who came for work in the auto factories during the early 20th century, and the food they brought with them has become one of the city’s most underrated treasures. You haven’t lived until you’ve had fried pork chops with collard greens and mac & cheese ordered through the bullet-proof glass at Motor City Soul Food. Nor have you lived before you’ve stopped on the side of a random westside street for some fresh grilled BBQ pork ribs and homemade cornbread -- soul food restaurants are open year round, but families also make a bit of extra cash by cooking up the classics streetside. Just look for the smoke rising and the sweet, unmistakable smell of barbecued meat. There’s even the highly lauded Detroit Vegan Soul for… well, vegans.

Enjoy the wit of Detroit’s growing comedy scene

Planet Ant and various other locations
$
When you think of “comedy cities,” your brain might jump to Chicago or Los Angeles. But Detroit’s comedy scene is on the rise. The resurgence is largely thanks to Planet Ant, which was partially founded by Keegan-Michael Key (of Key & Peele fame, of course). Whether you want to take improv classes or just enjoy stand-up, improv, podcasts, and shows from other Detroiters, Planet Ant is the epicenter. Other noteworthy comedy clubs include 313 Comedy and Go Comedy! Improv Theater. You can also go to Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle for some touring (and local) stand-up comedians.

See some amazing street art

Various locations
Free
There are new commissioned and non-commissioned works going up all the time, so even if you’ve checked out Detroit’s street art before, odds are the landscape has changed since then. Eastern Market is perhaps the most well-known center of jaw-dropping murals. The next time it’s halfway decent outside, you can easily walk around on your own and admire these ridiculously epic works of art. There’s also murals lining The BELT, a newly revitalized strip tucked away downtown. Read our article on the subject for more info, or get in your car (or on your bike) and do some exploring on your own.

Drink some fantastic coffee

Around Detroit
$
The Detroit coffee scene has exploded in recent years -- and many of the best coffee houses typically have some excellent eats as well. Grab some caffeinated gold at Trinosophes, Astro, Germack, Motor City Java House, Chazzano, Red Hook, Roasting Plant, Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company -- the list goes on and on.

Eat Coney Island dogs

Around Detroit
$
Coney Island restaurants are one of those ubiquitous, completely unique Detroit institutions. Coney Dogs were (almost certainly) created in Michigan, so you can’t visit (or live in) Detroit without downing a luscious, loaded, and cheap Coney: a hot dog loaded with chili on top. Unless you’re vegetarian or vegan, I guess. For the uninitiated, a Coney is a hot dog loaded with chili on top, and they’ll usually run you about $2 a pop. You can have an impromptu Coney judging contest by visiting American, Lafayette, Red Hots, or Anthony Bourdain’s favorite, Duly’s Place, though there are many, many Coney Islands to check out around the city.

Eat at the best restaurants in Detroit

Various locations
$-$$$
Detroit has always had great restaurants, but times have changed and many closed. Years later, during what some call the city’s renaissance and others call gentrification, we have been witnessing a lot of new restaurants with relatively high price points opening up. And they’re really, really good. There’s Lady of the House, Grey Ghost, Wright & Co., The Dime Store, The Apparatus Room, etc.

Stroll the Dequindre Cut

Eastern Market to Detroit Riverfront
Free
It’s been a weirdly mind winter -- so why not make the most of one of those nicer days with a walk? The Dequindre Cut is a two-mile greenway leading from north of Eastern Market down to the Detroit River. It’s a place to walk, ride your bike or run, skate, whatever. The point is, it’s lovely, it’s outside, it’s clean, it’s safe, and it’s free. With commissioned street art from some of the best artists in Detroit (and beyond) lining the walls, this magnificent use of an old railway is just another excuse for you to show off Detroit’s multifaceted beauty to your friends.

… Or the RiverWalk

Detroit Riverfront 
Free
The Dequindre Cut will lead you right to the RiverWalk, a gorgeous (and locally popular) path along the Detroit River. Other than luscious green parks, there’s plenty of fun along the way, like Cullen Plaza (which has a charmingly petite merry-go-round, among other attractions) and Hart Plaza, the home of several music festivals in the summertime.

Visit cool museums unique to Detroit

Around Detroit and Dearborn
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Detroit’s museum game is strong even beyond the world-class DIA. Chief for music fans is Hitsville USA, aka the Motown Museum, where you’ll get to stand inside the studio where the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye made their first hits. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History touts among its collection the impressive 22,000-square-foot interactive exhibit “And Still We Rise: Our Journey Through African American History and Culture,” which is unlike anything you’ll see outside of Detroit. Dearborn’s spectacular Arab American Museum is the first museum devoted to the history and culture of Arab Americans in the world. At The Henry Ford Museum complex, you can go to old-timey Greenfield Village, take a tour of the Rouge auto plant, or see the bus where Rosa Parks made her infamous protest. Then there's the Detroit Historical Society, which has a painstaking recreation of the Streets of Old Detroit in its lower level.

See the birthplace of the Model T

Ford Piquette Avenue Plant
$
Unless you’ve lived under several layers of rocks for the past hundred years, you know that Detroit’s nickname is the Motor City. And while there’s plenty of car industry history nestled all around Detroit, the most famous historical occurrence was definitely Henry Ford rolling out the first Model T in 1908. That first model Model T was created at the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant, which is open to the public. And if you really want to dive into the Fords, you can venture to the Henry Ford Estate in Dearborn and to his son Edsel’s mansion in Grosse Pointe.

Enjoy the Seasonal Festivities of Campus Martius

Campus Martius
$
Campus Martius is the center of Downtown Detroit, and there’s always something happening. In the winter (in this case, through March 8), it transforms into an infamous, beloved ice skating rink, which is perfect for a date night or a night out with friends. In the summer, the rink transforms into the “urban beach,” complete with actual sand and a beach bar. Plus, the park has free outdoor movie nights during summer weekends.

Attend the coolest events of the season

Various locations 
Free - $$
There are tons of events going on in Detroit throughout the year -- even in the winter and early spring. Check out the Motor City Tattoo Expo (late February), Detroit St. Patrick’s Day Parade (mid-March), Marche du Nain Rouge (mid-March), or the Belle Isle Grand Prix (late May), just to name a few. How can you keep on top of all these events? Simple: check out our weekend guides and our must-do events calendar, updated seasonally and stacked with powerhouse activities.

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Kirsten Carey is a Thrillist contributor.
Megan Frye is a Michigan native currently living in Mexico City. She would recommend a visit to Detroit’s Mexican town, but her current whereabouts prevent her from thinking objectively. But really, it’s worth a visit. Two words: Taco trucks. Tweet her in disagreement about all of the above at @fryechild.